The trial of Jason Payne began on Tuesday, January 19, 2010 with sentencing pronounced on January 28, 2010.
During those eight days in which motions by the prosecution and defense were filed and jury selection completed, the prosecution had to prove their case that Jason shot and killed his wife Nichole and stepson Taylor Wages in a double homicide.
In a trial the burden of proof rests on the prosecution to prove their case to the jury. According to our system of justice a defendant is innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, when in fact it has become the standard for the defendant to now have to prove his innocence. Since the burden of proof is with the prosecution they are most often granted more liberty and given leeway that the defense doesn't receive.
The actual trial for Jason began with both sides presenting very short opening statements. The prosecution began their case based on their version on how the crime of double homicide was committed using both forensic and circumstantial evidence.
Prosecution's Forensic Case:
On the forensic side of the prosecution's case they called local police officers to testify, who had responded to the 911 call made by Jason on December 11, 2007 about their role on the crime scene and what they saw. The lead detective on the case, Lt. Det Miles Tucker of the Wood County Sheriff's Department later called Texas Ranger Philip Kemp to assist with the on scene investigation.. Other forensic witnesses were called from the DPS crime lab who testified about their role in testing and reporting on the evidence gathered at the crime scene by the police. But the bulk of the prosecution's investigation testimony centered on lead detective Tucker who testified what he witnessed on the crime scene and how evidence was gathered and photographed. For the prosecution's case of double homicide to work they had to prove that Taylor had been shot first in the early morning hours of December 11, 2007 in a different location than where he was found, moved to his bed in the garage and the scene staged to make it look like a suicide. Tucker testified how all this was accomplished and how the evidence supported his theory. Tucker testified that Ranger Kemp called in Sgt. Noel Martin a Criminologist and Forensic Expert with the Smith County Sheriff's Department to do a crime scene reconstruction. Tucker's testimony showed that much to his surprise Martin didn't support his theory of a double homicide and instead stated his conclusion of the crime was a homicide suicide.
Instead of relying solely on Martin's conclusion Tucker decided to call a second Forensic Expert, Tom Bevel to review all the evidence and issue his findings. A key part of Tucker's testimony came when Defense Attorney, Douglas Parks asked Tucker if he had spoken to Bevel about his conclusion of how the crime was committed. Tucker testified he had not. Then Parks asked Tucker if he had supplied to Bevel all the evidence including his case report. Tucker testified that he had whereby Parks said but didn't your case report describe your conclusion of how the double homicide was committed.
Along with Tucker, Bevel and Richard Ernest, both forensic experts were key to the prosecution's case of proving double homicide. Unlike Martin, who was present at the crime scene neither Bevel or Ernest was ever at the crime scene. They based their conclusions on evidence, photos, autopsy reports, etc. and unlike Martin, who performed a crime scene reconstruction which focused solely on the physical evidence, Bevel performed an event analysis which used forensic evidence and circumstantial evidence provided by Tucker's case report. As Martin stated later in his testimony he let the evidence speak for itself; he didn't look at or even know what the circumstantial evidence was and testified even if he had known it, it wouldn't have made a difference in his conclusion of a homicide suicide.
Bevel's testimony focused mainly on the blood spatter on Taylor's face, the lack of soot on Taylor's face and lack of back spatter as evidenced by no blood on the wall and ceiling behind Taylor's bed. He testified that because there was no bullet found or bullet hole found in the garage the crime couldn't have happened there. Yet he and Tucker could never prove that Taylor was shot anywhere other than the garage, they inferred it but never proved it. In testimony given by Sgt Lain, a deputy with the Wood County Sheriff's office and prosecution witness he stated that he found a bullet casing in the bed clothes of Taylor indicating that the shooting occurred on the bed and in that garage.
Bevel and Ernest had to show that Taylor had to have been shot somewhere other than the bed in the garage because the trajectory of Taylor's wound from entering the left side of his lip and exiting the upper right side of his head would have been highly unlikely if not impossible for someone (Jason) to have fired that rifle and produce a wound of that trajectory without someone laying or severely crouching on the floor in front of the bed. For Bevel's conclusion and Tucker's theory to work the shooting of Taylor had to occur somewhere else and there was no evidence to support this. Bevel and Ernest had to show that the positioning of that rifle found at the crime scene couldn't have been fired by Taylor in that position. The scene had to be staged to look like Taylor positioned the butt of the rifle on the floor by the side of the bed, pointed the gun at his face, released the safety lever and pulled the trigger at the same time. Both said it was highly unlikely if not impossible for Taylor to have fired that rifle in that position. Yet neither demonstrated to the jury how unlikely or impossible it would have been. When Martin and Hueske testified for the defense they both were easily able to demonstrate to the jury just how easy the firing of that rifle from that position was.
Prosecution's Circumstantial Case:
The second phase of the prosecution's case was the circumstantial evidence. In this phase the prosecution had to show Jason had motive to have committed a double homicide, and show that Taylor had no motive to shoot his mother, Nichole and then shoot himself in suicide. The prosecution's circumstantial case wasn't that strong, but was made stronger by the weak if not nonexistence rebuttal by the defense.
- The prosecution stated that two holes dug on the far side of Jason's property, in his next door neighbor's lot were graves to be used by Jason for burying the bodies of Nichole and Taylor. The defense put on no rebuttal even though there was rebuttal.
- The prosecution stated a $100K insurance policy in Nichole's name with Jason as the beneficiary was motive for Jason to have killed Nichole and Taylor. The defense put on little if any rebuttal even though there was rebuttal.
- The prosecution stated that Nichole and Jason had financial problems and with the insurance money from Nichole's insurance policy Jason would have been able to climb out of dept. The defense put on little if any rebuttal even though there was rebuttal.
- The prosecution stated that because there were problems in the marriage and the relationship between them was severely troubled that Jason wanted out of the marriage and gave him motive for killing Nichole and Taylor. The most damaging part of this testimony was that given by Sarah Hawthorne who testified Nichole was afraid of Jason, that Jason was abusive, that Nichole wanted to divorce Jason, and that Jason had threatened to kill Nichole and burn the house down. Once Jason heard this testimony he whispered in Park's ear "you need to do something to rebut these lies." Parks said he would but then did nothing to rebut Hawthorne's testimony even though there was rebuttal.
- The prosecution stated because the sleeping arrangements were not the normal sleeping arrangements found in most homes that the martial relation was in trouble giving Jason further motive. The defense put on no rebuttal even though there was rebuttal.
- The prosecution stated that because there were no clothes or toiletries of Jason found at the house it inferred Jason was not living there and was further proof the marriage was in trouble giving Jason motive for killing Nichole. The defense put on no rebuttal even though there was rebuttal.
- The prosecution stated that Taylor had no motive to kill his mother and then commit suicide. The prosecution put on family, school friends and his high school guidance counselor all testifying that Taylor was a peaceful and law abiding boy. The defense put on no rebuttal even though there was rebuttal.
The defense's case pretty much consisted of the forensic evidence and the testimonies of Noel Martin and Ed Hueske. Both Martin and Hueske put on very compelling evidence that the crime was a murder suicide. Like Bevel and Ernest they focused on blood spatter, soot, trajectory and rifle positioning even though their conclusions were different. But the defense didn't appear to show the impossibility of the prosecution's case by showing it made no sense, was illogical and didn't happen the way the prosecution inferred it did. But the biggest weakness in the defense case was they did little if anything to rebut the prosecution's circumstantial case.
At the end of the trial the jury returned a verdict in five hours of the capital crime of double homicide. Because this case wasn't tried as a death penalty case the judge had only one sentence he could impose on Jason; life in prison without the possibility of parole.
There were many holes in the prosecution's forensic case that were not taken advantage of by the defense. Couple that with a lack of defense in the prosecution's circumstantial case and it made the job of the jury much easier to return a guilty verdict.